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2017-18 season preview: Forwards

Additions of Foligno, Ennis, Cullen make Wild deeper team up front

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

This story is part of Wild.com's 2017-18 season preview.

As the Minnesota Wild gets ready to drop the puck on the 2017-18 regular season, there will be plenty of familiar faces in place on the roster.

The NHL's second-best offense from a year ago, and most explosive in the Western Conference by a wide margin, Minnesota returns more than 78 percent of its 263 goals from a year ago, including each of its top seven goal scorers.

The Wild has even added to its core, making its forward group one of the NHL's deepest.

The losses of Erik Haula and Jason Pominville were supplemented in the deal that sent the latter back to Buffalo in late June. In exchange for Pominville and Scandella, the Wild acquired forwards Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis.

With uncertainty surrounding Zach Parise's sore back, the additional forward depth could come in handy.

Foligno, who is likely to begin the season on the third line, is a player the Wild have targeted for years because of his toughness. But he also displayed an ability to put the puck in the net last season, scoring a career-best 13 goals while also playing along side Jack Eichel with the Sabres. 

Like Ennis, and even Pominville before him, Foligno has the ability to slide up and down the lineup, filling a number of roles carefully. Boudreau raved about his addition all summer long and is excited to finally get a chance to test drive him in games that count.

Ennis is a lottery ticket of sorts. Injuries over the past couple of seasons made him expendable in Buffalo. Now fully healthy, Ennis has the chance to be a big-time addition to the Wild lineup.

While small in stature, Ennis provides the Wild with elite quickness and playmaking ability. A three-time 20-goal scorer early in his career in Buffalo, there's no reason to believe he shouldn't at least approach that plateau again if he can stay healthy.

As far as returners go, Boudreau has stayed with the line of Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund throughout training camp and into the regular season.

The Wild's best offensive group from Thanksgiving on last season, Zucker and Granlund each posted career-best seasons while Koivu posted a second-straight solid campaign. The group works well together, with Zucker and Granlund working off each other as playmakers and Koivu facilitating things in both ends of the rink.

"They were great last year. If they could continue that... like everyone else, they had a rough March, I think they tired out. But we played them against every top line in the league up til March and they dominated them," Boudreau said. "I think all three of them, at the end of February, were in the plus-30s area -- that's pretty good."

Nino Niederrieter signed a five-year extension with the Wild over the summer with the hopes he can take the next step in his career.

A 25-goal man last year, Niederreiter has spoken for years about reaching 30 -- a goal that's certainly within reach if he remains next to Eric Staal, as he has been for nearly all of training camp.

Boudreau and is staff have experimented with a number of different players over the past couple of weeks, and it's possible Parise may eventually settle next to Niederreiter and Staal. But until his back gets straightened out, it's likely to remain a constant competition between Ennis and Charlie Coyle.

Coyle started camp on the third line, but has been outstanding and was promoted to the right side of Niederreiter and Staal in Minnesota's penultimate preseason contest. Boudreau likes their familiarity together, as the trio played on the same line for chunks of last season as well.

Foligno has been on the side of Joel Eriksson Ek when the latter has been healthy during camp. After getting nicked up during the Traverse City Prospects Tournament last month, Eriksson Ek missed a few days at the start of camp before getting back into the lineup in Week 2. Eriksson Ek scored three goals and seven points in 15 regular season games, playing in three more playoff contests a year ago.

All of it was important experience for the rookie forward, who the team thinks the world of, both offensively and defensively.

"He looks much more like a hockey player," Boudreau said. "[Last year, it looked like] he was happy to be here. This year, he's taking it a lot more serious in the vain that he knows he's an NHL player and he's out to prove it."

Another offseason addition, Matt Cullen was signed in August to help anchor the Wild's bottom-six forward group. Cullen's role will change, not only period by period, but shift by shift. While Eriksson Ek will see his fair share of ice time, expect Cullen to get the call late in games and when Minnesota is in need of a big face-off win.

"It sinks in a little bit more when you get on the ice with the guys, you put the sweater on and get out there with the guys in the big building. It kind of hits home a little bit more," Cullen said. "Everything happened so fast this summer, and not until you get on the ice with the guys do you really feel like you're here." 

Boudreau has plenty of options alongside Cullen, including Ennis, Chris Stewart (13 goals last season), and even Daniel Winnik, a free agent with whom Boudreau was impressed during a professional tryout during training camp. 

If the Wild can get creative with its salary cap, Winnik or someone else could be an option.

Minnesota made a sustained effort to improve its forward depth in Iowa as well, signing Landon Ferraro, Kyle Rau and Cal O'Reilly to go along with Iowa holdovers Sam Anas, Justin Kloos , Zack Mitchell and Pat Cannone.

Luke Kunin, the Wild's first-round pick in 2016, was outstanding at Traverse City and followed it up with a very good training camp. Expect Kunin to be one of the first players called up in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

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